By Lisa Readie Mayer
Pellet grills may have been around for more than three decades, but it has been only for the last handful of years that they have taken their rightful place on the patio. Traction in the category grew slowly after the Traeger family invented and patented the continuously‑fed, wood‑pellet‑fueled grills in 1986. Indeed, for years afterward, only a few people had ever heard of pellet grills outside of the Pacific Northwest where they originated.
But that has all changed. Ushered in on a wave of consumer interest in wood‑smoke flavors, pellet grills have achieved “it‑grill” status today. Thanks to automated, set‑it‑and‑forget‑it operation, pellet grills appeal not just to die‑hard barbecuers, but also to convenience‑minded gas grillers who want the smoky flavor and texture of “real” barbecue, but are intimidated by, or don’t want the hassle of, tending a traditional smoker. The cookers even have a hip social media presence.
With nearly three‑dozen brands now offering product at a wide range of price points, awareness and sales continue to grow. Most present‑day pellet grills have resolved the criticisms of the early versions – that they were limited to only low‑and‑slow cooking, not well insulated, and unattractive for upscale outdoor spaces.
While pellet grills still cook primarily by flare‑up‑free, indirect heat, modern renditions now offer the option of cooking at temperatures high enough to sear steaks and burgers. Mechanics, construction, quality, and aesthetics also have been upgraded. Pellet grills lead all other grill categories in incorporating smart features and technology.
With Growth Comes Competition
There is no doubt the pellet grill category is generating buzz in the barbecue industry, and manufacturers are taking notice. Telling evidence is last year’s move by Kingsford, the country’s leading charcoal brand, to launch a nationally available line of 100% hardwood pellet fuels.
Veteran pellet grill manufacturers such as Traeger, Dansons, Memphis, Yoder, and Green Mountain Grills report strong growth; for example, according to Dansons’ president Jeff Thiessen, the company’s pellet grill business more than tripled last year. But with more than 30 manufacturers now offering a pellet grill, competition is increasingly “fierce,” notes Jason Baker, director of Business Development at Green Mountain Grills.
“If there were five to seven key players in 2017, there are 10 to 12 key players now,” he says. “Everyone has done a good job of promoting pellet grills, and each company is trying to carve out its niche.”
He points out that as the pellet grill market expands and matures, it’s segmenting. “Certain brands are price‑point driven through Box stores, while others are positioned at the high end of the price spectrum. Some brands are focused on selling direct to the consumer, while we remain priced in the middle and sell through independent brick‑and‑mortar stores,” says Baker.
The pellet-gas Hybrid grill from Black Earth Grills.
Based on consumer and dealer feedback, Green Mountain Grills recently upgraded features, including adding a grill window, a fuel‑level alarm, bulkier legs, and an additional probe on the control board, to make its grills more user‑friendly. Baker says interest in the grills’ Wi‑Fi feature continues to grow. “It’s fun and gives users more control and consistency through the app. The cloud is phenomenal – you can keep track of your average cook temperatures and times. People really like it.”
In 2019, the company will focus on enhancing fuel efficiency and incorporating 12‑volt, rechargeable battery capability. “We will still keep prices under $1,000,” says Baker. “Our sweet spot is between $800 and $1,000. We’ll focus on what we do best and leave the high‑end, built‑in market to other brands.”
Companies such as Memphis Wood Fire Grills are happy to oblige filling that niche. Named the “Best Luxury Smoker” by AmazingRibs.com, Memphis Wood Fire Grills is a premium pellet grill brand that offers the flexibility of smoking, roasting, and searing at temperatures between 180 and 700 degrees. Its high‑end finishes, quality construction, and elegant design make it a top choice for building into an outdoor kitchen alongside a premium gas grill.
“Our sales were up by double digits last year,” says Sharla Wagy, general manager, Memphis Grills. “We are continuing to add dealers and are seeing more people building our grills into outdoor kitchens.”
Last year, Twin Eagles introduced a high‑end pellet grill with an upscale look to match the brand’s other grill offerings. It also comes with a full, luxury feature set, and is controlled by a high‑tech, intuitive, app‑managed, digital panel programmed with temperature and smoke settings for 25 foods.
According to Brian Eskew, “The premium grill purchase decision starts with how the grill looks, then the decision moves to features. Our pellet grill answers both needs. It performs great and looks cool on the patio, even when you’re not using it.”
Other pellet‑grill companies – including many newcomers – are bringing lots of innovation to the category. Camp Chef’s new PG24SG series, which earned a Vesta Award last year, features “Slide & Grill” technology in which the heat‑diffuser plate slides to seamlessly switch between indirect‑ and direct‑flame cooking. It also incorporates a patented ash cleanout system.
Black Earth Grills has introduced a pellet‑gas hybrid grill that can be used with either fuel separately or in tandem. “Pellet grilling is really growing, and this grill is ideal for someone who wants a traditional gas grill, but also wants to try pellets,” says Tom McAdams who handles Sales and Operations.
Tabletop pizza ovens from Ooni and Wood Pellet Pizza Oven cook with pellet fuels. The ICON kamado line from Vision grills offers a Pellet Insert system to quickly swap out traditional charcoal for pellet fuel. Landmann USA introduced the Pellet Kettle, a gas and pellet dual‑fuel grill.
Professional pitmaster Myron Mixon has added a line of organic pellet wood fuel to complement his pellet cookers. “I think pellets will surpass charcoal use soon,” he says. “It’s clean and easy to use. Women tell us they are comfortable using pellet grills, even when they’re not comfortable with gas or charcoal.”
PG24SG from Camp Chef.
Building the Buzz
Dansons made news late last year when pellet grill inventor Joe Traeger joined the company in a product development role, and his son Brian joined the sales team. (Joe and Brian Traeger, as well as Dansons and its subsidiaries, are not affiliated in any way with Traeger Grills.) Dansons’ Pit Boss line has a strong hold in Big Box chains, but Thiessen says Joe Traeger will help the company enhance its offerings for the independent channel.
A new line of pellet grills is in development exclusively for specialty retailers, and will be called the Louisiana Grill Founders Series, in recognition of Joe Traeger’s founding of the category. The new grills, some of which will be unveiled at HPBExpo in Dallas, have patent‑pending technology and many innovative features, according to Thiessen.
“How proud we are to be affiliated with Joe Traeger,” he says. “No one has more depth in the pellet grill segment or has spent more time developing pellet products. There is a remarkable synergy between our two families that comes from being in family‑owned businesses. We are thrilled, not just with the product‑development skill and passion he brings, but with the man himself.
“God has blessed us far beyond what we could have ever imagined,” Thiessen continues. “We’re having a great time as a business and launching a ton of new products. We’re aggressively expanding our spice and accessories lines, our vertical pellet smokers have been extremely successful this year, and our pellet fuels have expanded aggressively as well.”
The company plans to host a Founders Series Barbecue event in September at the original Traeger family barn in Mount Angel, Oregon. The structure will become a product development facility for Dansons, with plans to eventually turn it into a museum.
Brands such as Dansons, Yoder, Camp Chef, and Traeger have enviable followings on social media. They rack up hundreds of thousands of views for their instructional videos, and have many thousands of loyal followers who help to hype products, spread awareness, and amplify the buzz in the category. For instance, Yoder Smokers enjoys a passionate following with over 3,300 members and nearly 10,000 posts on its online community forum.
Market leader Traeger hosted a National Traeger Day celebration on May 12 last year, inviting owners to cook on their Traeger grills and post photos of the food with the hashtag #traegerday. The event generated hundreds and hundreds of posts for everything from smoked apple tart to zucchini, with plenty of traditional pork ribs, chicken, and brisket in between. One poster captured the sense of lifestyle the brand has expertly achieved, stating, “I no longer grill. I only Traeger.”
When Camp Chef’s social media video spoof promoting its Woodwind pellet grill went viral last year, it garnered nearly 30 million views. “Dealers say they’ve had customers coming in as a result of seeing it,” says Marketing manager Ryan Neeley. “The campaign really lifted awareness of Camp Chef as a whole.”
Indeed, manufacturers’ efforts such as this are driving consumers to stores in search of pellet grills, according to retailers. Dan Hathaway of the Kansas City BBQ Store in Olathe, Kansas, says, “The pellet business is going crazy right now. It’s been going on for the past couple of years.” Hathaway says that despite the increasing availability of pellet grills online or at mass‑market retailers, sales are still growing steadily in the brick‑and‑mortar store. “Other stores may have it, but people know we’re the experts,” he says.
Matt Federico of Country Stove, Patio & Spa in North Royalton, Ohio, says, “We have seen pellet grills really catch on in the last year or two… people come in very informed about the pellet category. They have done their research and often even come in looking for a specific model. The customer for pellet grills is someone who wants to get more serious about barbecuing, but doesn’t want the mess or hassle or learning curve involved with charcoal.”
Convenience and ease of use is also behind the growth in pellet grill sales at Kerrisdale Lumber in Vancouver, British Columbia, according to Lyle Perry. “There is a certain consumer who enjoys the romanticism of cooking with fire, wood, and smoke, and typically they will choose either (a pellet grill or a kamado),” he explains. “We are predominantly a gas grill market, so more of our customers are choosing pellet grills because they’re closer to (the gas‑grill experience). They’re more approachable.”
While easy and intuitive, there is still a learning curve involved with pellet grills for most consumers. Specialty retailers who position themselves as experts in the category should be able to capitalize on the buzz and enjoy solid sales growth for years to come.